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Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.

Protean ProseThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

SchmetterlingsschmuckButterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

Criblia – ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Micro MacroSuper Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Chute: The LotThe Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

Twice Has Thrice the VicePisces, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2017)


• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

The Water-Babies by Charles KingsleyThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

When I first read this as a child, I didn’t realize that it was one of the strangest books ever written. I do now. And the strangeness was heightened by the old edition I’ve re-read it in, because it came as a double volume that started with Kingsley’s The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

No-one reading The Heroes would guess what awaited them in the second half of the book. The prose plods, the imagery is strictly conventional – “Then Aietes’ rage rushed up like a whirlwind, and his eyes flashed fire” – and Kingsley makes interesting stories dull. I quickly gave up when I tried to read them.

Maybe I was anticipating The Water-Babies too much. It starts almost conventionally, but it has an unconventional hero: “a little chimney-sweep” called Tom. He’s unwashed, unlettered, untaught, and unfairly treated by his master in “a great town in the north country”. But he accepts the hardships of his life, finds fun where he can, and thinks of “the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.”

That first long paragraph of The Water-Babies is already richer and more vivid than the whole of The Heroes. And the book hasn’t got strange yet. It starts to do so when Tom is taken into the country to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, the grand home of the squire Sir John Harthover:

[It] had been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.

For the attics were Anglo-Saxon.

The third door Norman.

The second Cinque-cento.

The first-floor Elizabethan.

The right wing Pure Doric.

The centre Early English, with a huge portico copied from the Parthenon.

The left wing pure Boeotian, which the country folk admired most of all, became it was just like the new barracks in the town, only three times as big.

The grand staircase was copied from the Catacombs at Rome.

The back staircase from the Tajmahal at Agra. […]

The cellars were copied from the caves of Elephanta.

The offices from the Pavilion at Brighton.

And the rest from nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth. (The Water-Babies, ch. 1)

That’s an early taste of the eccentric lists and juggling of ideas to come. Tom begins to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, but accidentally comes down in the bedroom of the squire’s daughter as she lies asleep in bed. She’s the “most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen”. And she’s completely clean. Then Tom notices someone else in the room: “standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth.”

He turns on it angrily, then realizes it’s his own reflection in a “great mirror, the like of which [he] had never seen before.” For the first time in his life, he understands that he is dirty. The knowledge startles and shames him, so he tries to flee up the chimney. But he upsets the fire-irons and wakes the little girl. She screams, thinking he’s a thief; and Tom’s adventures begin. He leaves the little girl’s bedroom by the window, climbing down the magnolia tree outside, and runs off.

Soon the whole house and its staff are chasing him, but he tricks them off his trail, “as cunning as an old Exmoor stag”, and makes off through a wood, then onto the hills of a moor. After the grand catalogue of architectural styles, Kingsley’s descriptions become detailed and naturalistic: “[Tom] saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible.” But when he disturbs a grouse washing itself in sand, it runs off and tells its wife about the end of the world. Like Tom, the reader has entered a new world where animals think and talk.

But the truly big transformation is still to come. The sun is very hot as Tom climbs the limestone hills and starts down the other side. He grows thirsty and begins to suffer from sun-stroke. When he seeks help at a dame-school, he’s given some milk and a place to rest, but his head is ringing and he wants to be clean. He walks to a stream in a nearby meadow and bathes in it. Then he falls asleep in it:

Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke — children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them — found himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or — that I may be accurate — 3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills (I hope you understand all the big words) just like those of a sucking eft, which he mistook for a lace frill, till he pulled at them, found he hurt himself, and made up his mind that they were part of himself, and best left alone. (ch. II)

He’s now a Water-Baby and can begin his amphibious adventures. As the title suggests, water is central to this book: it’s a protean, ever-changing medium, with the power to transform, transport and cleanse. And it has a lot in common with language, which is also protean and transformative.

So Kingsley plays with language as he describes water and its inhabitants. I thought he was making fun of scientific terminology – “3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills” is just the start – but apparently he was a friend of Charles Darwin and accepted Evolution. A lot of that goes on in this book: physical, intellectual and moral. Tom evolves from boy to Water-Baby, but he has a lot of bad habits to unlearn as he travels down the stream and the river into which evolves. He talks with all kind of animals:

And as the creature sat in the warm bright sun, a wonderful change came over it. It grew strong and firm; the most lovely colours began to show on its body, blue and yellow and black, spots and bars and rings; out of its back rose four great wings of bright brown gauze; and its eyes grew so large that they filled all its head, and shone like ten thousand diamonds.

“Oh, you beautiful creature!” said Tom; and he put out his hand to catch it.

But the thing whirred up into the air, and hung poised on its wings a moment, and then settled down again by Tom quite fearless.

“No!” it said, “you cannot catch me. I am a dragon-fly now, the king of all the flies; and I shall dance in the sunshine, and hawk over the river, and catch gnats, and have a beautiful wife like myself. I know what I shall do. Hurrah!” And he flew away into the air, and began catching gnats. (ch. III)

Tom also meets wicked otters and snobbish salmon. Then he reaches the sea, realm of the ever-changing god Proteus, and things get even stranger. He talks with hermit-crabs and lobsters as he searches for other Water-Babies. Words and ideas run and swirl through the story like currents, and so do emotions. Tom experiences both joy and sadness:

And then there came by a beautiful creature, like a ribbon of pure silver with a sharp head and very long teeth; but it seemed very sick and sad. Sometimes it rolled helpless on its side; and then it dashed away glittering like white fire; and then it lay sick again and motionless.

“Where do you come from?” asked Tom. “And why are you so sick and sad?”

“I come from the warm Carolinas, and the sandbanks fringed with pines; where the great owl-rays leap and flap, like giant bats, upon the tide. But I wandered north and north, upon the treacherous warm gulf-stream, till I met with the cold icebergs, afloat in the mid ocean. So I got tangled among the icebergs, and chilled with their frozen breath. But the water-babies helped me from among them, and set me free again. And now I am mending every day; but I am very sick and sad; and perhaps I shall never get home again to play with the owl-rays any more.” (ch. IV)

That’s a description of an oar-fish, I think. When Tom finds the Water-Babies of whom it spoke, he completes his moral education under the guidance of two mother-fairies, the ugly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and the beautiful Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. But the ugly can become beautiful: Kingsley was a Christian and this is a moralistic story too. The dirt that Tom has to lose is spiritual, not just moral and physical: he saw a crucifix in the little girl’s bedroom and didn’t know what it was.

But there’s too much going on in The Water-Babies for any simple reading of Kingsley’s aims. Or perhaps I’m saying that because I’m not a Christian. Either way, the book certainly isn’t conventional in its Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Kingsley’s world is big enough for non-believers. But it isn’t as coherent as Narnia or Middle-earth, or as easy to enter as Wonderland. That’s part of why The Water-Babies isn’t as famous or as widely read today. Lewis Carroll played with both logic and language; Kingsley plays with both life and language.

That’s what I like about this book. You’ll find vivid little naturalistic touches like spiders shaking in their webs and words like “Necrobioneopalaeonthydrochthonanthropopithekology”. If Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll had collaborated on a book, it might have ended up something rather like The Water-Babies. And James Joyce would have been good as a collaborator too. I don’t know if he was influenced by The Water-Babies, but he could have been. He too was obsessed with language and water. Both of them are at the heart of this Fairy Tale for a Land Baby.

Super Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Super Bugs is a big and lavishly illustrated book aimed at children, but I think adults will get the most out of it. It beats film and the internet on their own ground: the images are very powerful and very detailed. In fact, if you’re an arachnophobe or an entomophobe, I wouldn’t recommend opening it. There are spiders here as big as hats and beetles as big as small dogs.

I’m fascinated rather than repulsed by spiders and insects, but I wouldn’t like to meet a vinegaroon in the flesh – or in the oil-dark, glittering carapace. But vinegaroons, or whip scorpions, look more ferocious than they are. They defend themselves by spraying a vinegar-like chemical, hence their name. Not deadly.

Centipedes and real scorpions, on the other hand, are as fearsome as they look. The giant centipede on pages 52 and 53 is magnified to the thickness of an arm, with poisonous fangs as big as fingers. I was uncomfortably reminded of James Bond’s encounter with a giant centipede in Dr No (1958), but the image would probably been more disturbing if it had been life-sized, rather than much bigger.

Then it would have looked more real. A centipede can’t grow as big as an arm and you don’t have to know about oxygen-diffusion and the inefficiency of arthropod respiration to understand that. But we would have understood centipedes and other arthropods quicker if they were so big, because then we would have seen the details of their bodies more clearly. The microscope has been essential to the development of modern science and the giant photos here are a reminder of that.

So are the short but interesting texts that accompany each photo section. There is a world of wonder inside and outside the most ordinary-seeming insect. Not that any insect is really ordinary, but this book collects some of the strangest, from wasps with metal in their ovipositors to beetles that look like violins. Plus peacock spiders, anaesthetic-equipped ticks, and star-shaped-egg-laying tardigrades, which might be called the toughest of the tiniest.

Criblia

ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Georgian is the most difficult language I’ve ever seriously studied. Phonetically it’s probably the most difficult full stop. But I continue to plod away at it and bought this Bible to help me. I wanted to encounter Georgian in the wild, as it were. Not that this is truly wild Georgian: it’s a translation, not something composed by a native speaker from scratch. But Bibles are usually strong influences on the language of a Christian nation and the Georgian Bible, like Georgian Christianity, is among the oldest in the world.

This is modern Georgian, though. Or fairly modern: I can notice some archaic plurals and I’ve been told that there are old-fashioned verbs. If my Georgian were better, I would notice more of what’s archaic, but I don’t think it’s as far from modern Georgian as the King James Version is from modern English. I’d been having even more difficulty with it if that were the case, I suspect. I would have preferred just a New Testament, because it would have been smaller and less intimidating, but perhaps one day I’ll be able to dip anywhere into this full Bible and understand what I’m reading.

At the moment, I can’t do that. I still find Georgian verbs very difficult, but that’s one of the good things about the Gospels. They’re repetitive and use a limited vocabulary. And I’m already familiar with the stories. Even so, I have to prime myself by reading each section in another language before I try the Georgian. Not English: that would be too simple and no good as linguistic exercise. Instead, I use the Latin of a Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine, with occasional glances at the Greek that flanks it.

Latin is easy next to Georgian and although I can’t read Tacitus or Cicero in the original, the Latin of the Gospels is very straightforward. But I still need to think harder than in English, which makes the meaning grow more slowly and powerfully in my brain. I didn’t appreciate the Gospels properly until I read them in Latin and Greek. There are some strange things going on and the Last Supper and Crucifixion are moving stories.

But I’m not moved or awed in Georgian: I’m still reading too slowly and understanding too weakly. The stepping-stones in Latin are close together and dry underfoot. I can walk across quickly and confidently, enjoying the sound and sight of the river:

Et recordatus est Petrus verbi Iesu, quod dixerat: Priusquam gallus cantet, ter me negabis. Et egressus foras ploravit amare. (Matthaeus 26:75)

In Georgian, the stepping-stones are far apart and slippery. I’m too busy trying not to fall off to appreciate the river:

და გაახსენდა პეტრეს იესოს ნათქვანი სიტყვა: სანამ მამალი იყივლებდეს, სამჯერ უარმყოფ მე. გამოვიდა გარეთ და მწარედ ატირდა. (მათეს სახარება 26:75)

Da gaakhsenda P’et’res Iesos natkvani sit’qva: Sanam mamali iqivlebdes, samjer uarmqop me. Gamovida garet da mts’ared at’irda.

In English, that verse is:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:75)

One word is almost identical in all three languages: “me”. And the Georgian genitive of Iesos uses a suffix much like the one in English. The suffix Georgian uses on nouns in the past tense – ეს თორმეტი იესომ დაარიგა, Es tormet’i Iesom daarigi, “These twelve Jesus sent forth” (Mth 10:5) – is strange to speakers of English, French or German, but it’s like the -ne used not so far off in Hindi. Georgian isn’t an Indo-European language and has resisted the influence of its giant neighbour Russian with surprising success, but it’s not as alien as Chinese or Arabic.

Except in its phonology and phonetics. That’s part of what attracts me to it: as I said in an earlier review, Georgian torments the tongue even as it pleases the eye. The alphabet is one of the most beautiful ever created. I was disappointed at first by the font used in this book, but I’ve got used to it now. It’s minimal, distinguishing ხ and ძ, შ and წ only by orientation, and perhaps that suits the simplicity of the Gospels better.

But I would prefer a more decorative font for იოანე ღმერთისმეტყველის გამოცხადება, Ioane Ghmertismet’qvelis Gamotskhadeba, or the John Prophet’s Revelation. I’m not ready for that final book of the New Testament yet, because I’ve not even reached the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament. But I hope to be ready one day. I might even be able to read parts of it without a Latin crib. That’s where the მეძავთა და დედამიწის სიბილწეთა დედა is waiting: the medzavta da dedamits’is sibilts’eta deda, the “whores’ and earth’s abominations’ mother”, is waiting. Revelation in Georgian will be even stranger than it is in Greek, Latin and English.

Butterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

The best book on butterflies and moths I’ve ever owned was a translation from Italian. It was illustrated by hand and had a lot of serious science in it. This book by the Swiss author Thomas Marent is very good too, but in a different way. It uses big photographs taken by Marent and doesn’t have much text. The photographs are spectacular: far larger than life. And many of them definitely put the λεπιδες into lepidoptera.

That’s the lepides, the “scales” after which this group of insects are named. The colours and patterns of the lepidoptera, or scale-wings, are formed like mosaics, by the arrangement and structure of tiny scales on their wings. Or mostly like that. Some butterflies and moths have transparent wings, like the wasp- and bee-mimics shown towards the end of the book. Before that, Marent covers all the most famous and beautiful varieties of butterfly, from the peacocks and swallowtails of Europe to the birdwings of Asia and the morphos of South America.

There are many obscure ones too, plus some beautiful moths. But a large section of the book is given over to colours, patterns and shapes that aren’t beautiful. Instead, they’re strange or grotesque, because they belong to lepidopteran larvae, not adults. Caterpillars can be garishly coloured or subtly camouflaged. They can have spikes, knobs, horns or irritating hairs. They’re often poisonous and when they are, it pays them to advertise. In some ways, they’re the most interesting part of a lepidopteran’s life-cycle and it’s good that they get a lot of attention here.

For one thing, it heightens the beauty of the adults and of the pupae and chrysalids from which the adults emerge. A double-page is given over to:

The gleaming, mirror-like sides of the orange-spotted tiger clearwing pupa (Mechanitis polymnia) in Colombia[, which] provide camouflage by reflecting the light and colours of the surrounding rainforest. After rainfall they seem to disappear among the glistening wet leaves. (pg. 140)

Thomas Marent has travelled the world to photograph specimens for this book and his work has definitely been rewarded. And there is some serious science in the captions and the introductions to each section: “Identity”, “Anatomy”, “Transformation”, and so on. A lot of people like lepidoptera and a lot of books get published about them, but this stands out in a crowded field.

The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

I enjoyed this book a lot when I first read it a few years ago. This time it was less fun. It didn’t seem as well-written and there was an occasional nasty edge that I didn’t remember from the first read. But I can still recommend it as an entertaining guide to a very strange band.

I’m not a fan of The Fall myself, though I think I can see why so many people are. And why they tend to be so devoted. Mark E. Smith, the “non-musician” who has led the band through decades of line-up changes, is himself a fan of both H.P. Lovecraft and Captain Beefheart. And it shows. Some of his song-titles could stand by themselves without any lyrics or music: “Rowche Rumble”, “How I Wrote Elastic Man”, “Mr Pharmacist”, “Why Are People Grudgeful?”.

The album titles are good too. Live at the Witch Trials was the first Fall album (it wasn’t live). Then there are Hex Enduction Hour, Code: Selfish, Imperial Wax Solvent, Sub-Lingual Tablet. A strange and interesting mind chose or came up with those. Dave Simpson encounters that mind at the beginning of the book, when he spends hours drinking in a Manchester pub with “Mad Mark”, as Mark E. Smith is known in his home-town of Prestwich. Why has Smith fired so many musicians? “It’s like football. Every so often you’ve got to change the centre-forward.”

But there’s more to it than that, as Simpson discovers in the rest of the book. He set out to track down all of The Fall’s many ex-members, from the most famous and long-lasting to the most fleeting and obscure. Even as he’s ticking names off his list, Smith is lengthening it. As the cover of this paperback says: “NOW with Added Ex-Members!” But everything Simpson writes about the Fallen is also telling you something about the Feller (in both senses of the word). Mark E. Smith is at the centre of everything, hiring, firing, drinking, prodding – something he likes to do to musicians on-stage.

It unsettles them, destroys routine and monotony, encourages the spontaneity that Smith thinks is essential to musical creativity and performance. And his unpredictability seems to work: although The Fall have often fallen fallow and released weak albums, they’ve always burst back to life with new members and new material. Or so Simpson says. He’s been a fan for a long time. So was his girlfriend when he started writing the book. They’d broken up before he finished it, which was appropriate.

Was it the Curse of Smith at work? Mad Mark certainly didn’t like being analysed or having light shed on his work and the many misfortunes that have dogged his group. Some of them seem to be have been deliberately engineered. Smith doesn’t want superstardom or great wealth. He wants to remain an Outsider. Lovecraft wrote about one of those and so did Camus. The Fall were named from Camus’s novel La Chute (1956) and perhaps Smith thought he’d die young just as Camus did.

He didn’t. The Fall have always been one of England’s strangest groups; now they’re one of the longest-lasting too. And the only ever-present is Smith. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already read this book. If you aren’t, you may become one by doing so. It’s sometimes very funny and, like a biography of AC/DC I’ve reviewed, has a lot of sociological interest in it. You can’t understand Smith without understanding north-west England and Manchester in particular. And like a biography of Iron Maiden I’ve also reviewed, it teaches you a lot about historiography, or the process of writing and researching history. The Fall were formed in a rich country in peaceful times. But no-one can be sure what exactly happened to who, why, when and how. Some stories come in many different versions. Some stories may reverse the truth. And according to Marc Riley: “There are a lot of skeletons in The Fall cupboard and stories that haven’t been told.”

If Mark E. Smith has his way, they never will be. But I can foresee this book being updated again. And perhaps even again.

Pisces, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2017)

March 2016. Anglo-American academic Miriam Stimbers leaves her apartment in St Louis to attend an ’80s nostalgia concert at a local rock-arena. Behind her, she leaves transgressive author Peter Sotos to fish-sit her prized tank of tropical fish. Four hours later, Stimbers returns to her apartment to discover the tank empty and Sotos lying unconscious on the floor.

When he revives, Sotos describes how, minutes after Stimbers’ departure, the apartment was invaded by a masked gang.

He remembers trying to fight them off.

Then it all went black…

Pisces is a detailed examination of that fateful March day and its continuing repercussions. It is a true-crime book like no other, written from the inside by a no-holds-barred author who has been at the heart of events right from the beginning. As Dr Stimbers writes in her introduction:

Peter was a rock throughout the preliminary bewilderment-and-grieving process. It was truly a great comfort when he told me that, despite the brief time he knew my fish, he felt that he and the eighty-six of them had forged a genuine and permanent bond. Furthermore, despite the brutal assault to which he was subjected and the stress-induced hiccups he suffered for two days after the fish-napping, Peter barely left my side for the rest of the month, helping me to process my initial shock and horror and trying to assist the police investigation in any way he could. He also came up with the most plausible theory as to the gang’s identity. No trace of any break-in could be discovered, nor, despite detailed examination of multiple CCTV-feeds, was it possible to identify any strangers entering or leaving the apartment-block during the relevant time-period. But, while the gang was in the apartment, they re-arranged my bookshelves and anonymously purchased me a gift-subscription to the Journal of Forensic Entomology.

Peter’s suggestion?

“They must have been ninja librarians, Miri,” he said.

I concur. It’s the only explanation that fits all the facts. (Introduction, pg. ix)

But why would ninja librarians fish-nap a set of tropical fish? Where have they taken their piscine prizes? When will they issue a ransom demand? These questions continue to haunt all those involved in this unique tragedy. Pisces examines each aspect of the case from every conceivable angle and will only serve to trans-toxify Sotos’s rebarbative renown as an edgily incendiary archaeologist of the most photophobic furlongs of the counter-cultural complexus.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

K-9 Konundrum — review of Dog by Peter Sotos
Toxic Twosome — review of Doll by Peter Sotos and James Havoc


Forthcoming Fetidity from TransVisceral Books…

Stiff for Stiffs: Kandid Konfessions of a Korpse-Kopulator, דוד קרקשׁ
Slime-Sniffer: The Norman Nekrophile Story, Nicolae Feralescu
Pay to Slay: The Toxic True Tale of the Mersey Murder-Machine, Dr Samuel P. Salatta

Pocket to LaroussiaLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Translated to HeavenLes Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

The Eyes of the Infinite MindFicciones, Jorge Luis Borges

Caught by the FurzeFrancis Walker’s Aphids, John P. Doncaster (British Museum 1961)

Commit to CrunchMaverick Munch: Selecting a Sinisterly Savory Snack to Reinforce Your Rhizomatically Radical Reading, Will Self (TransVisceral Books 2016)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.